Sunday, April 6, 2008

Trouble with weapons

Clear your weapon here: Although this sand-filled clearing barrel can stop an errant bullet, your weapon should be free of ammunition before you put the muzzle in and pull the trigger.

A principle of proper gunmanship is that, even with an unloaded weapon, you must at all times maintain “muzzle awareness.” A basic tenet of muzzle awareness holds that should you never point the barrel of your weapon at another person. It would seem easy to avoid such a scenario, but at times it requires quite a bit of attention and concentration to keep a muzzle directed safely away from everyone else, as when you have a rifle slung across your back and you are trying to move through a crowded dining room. Getting in and out of vehicles with weapons can also present a challenge, and I’ve been poked a few times in the leg and ribs by the business end of a colleague’s rifle as he struggled to get into a Humvee or armored truck while wearing fifty pounds of body armor.

Those incidents didn’t bother me much, as I know the improprieties were a consequence of the burdensome physical load the person was carrying. But what does annoy me is the “flashing” to which I’m subjected daily. If you are devoid of muzzle awareness and allow the barrel of your weapon to point directly at another person, you flashed him. During weapons training in the US and Kuwait, some people were notorious for flashing the rest of the platoon with both loaded and unloaded weapons. At one firing range exercise, another officer turned from the targets with her weapon still raised to ask the instructor behind her a question. Two dozen people behind her immediately fell to the ground as she flashed her loaded weapon at a line of people waiting to walk onto the range. The instructor flinched as well. On the base in Kabul, many people carry a pistol sheathed in a shoulder holster that should hold the gun under your armpit with the barrel facing groundward. Think Jimmy Smits as Detective Bobbie Simone on NYPD Blue. Yet every day I see several people walking with holsters that, because of comfort or misfit, maintain the pistol barrels parallel to the ground, thereby flashing everyone behind them.

When on base, we keep the ammunition magazine out of a weapon and the weapon’s status is termed “green.” If we leave the base, however, we are supposed to lock a magazine of bullets into our weapon, and with ammunition inserted the status of the weapon changes to “amber.” A weapon is considered “red” when a magazine is locked and a round of ammunition is loaded into the firing chamber, hence the phrase “locked and loaded.”

Even in amber status with the safety mechanism applied, a pistol can be dangerous when you are riding on the rough pocked roads of Afghanistan. A bullet can be chambered inadvertently, the safety switch can be jostled to fire, and suddenly you’ve got a weapon asking for an unintended victim. Which is why I became very nervous very quickly last week when a medical officer riding shotgun (but thankfully without one) in my vehicle had an amber weapon in his shoulder holster pointing not toward the floor but between the front two seats and directly at the head of another officer sitting next to me. We quickly pointed out his breach of muzzle etiquette, but his lackadaisical response was “Oh, that’s just the way my holster holds the pistol.” He made no attempt to adjust the pistol’s position. I politely proposed that the two of us in the back seat aim our pistols directly at his skull so that he could enjoy the same level of comfort we currently were feeling on the trip. He begrudgingly unholstered his gun and held it in a safe position for the remainder of the trip.

From what I’ve seen so far amongst the staff officers with whom I serve, I’m much more likely to take a bullet from someone I know in an inadvertent weapon discharge than to be shot by an insurgent. Personnel from my command carry rifles and pistols for self-defense, and I think we need them when we travel into some areas of Afghanistan; but the primary danger for anyone traveling in Kabul and environs, and maybe the whole of Afghanistan, is an encounter with an improvised explosive devise on the roadside or a suicide bomber on foot or in a vehicle. A personal firearm will do little to nothing to prevent or mitigate that type of attack. We routinely discuss the possibility of taking small arms fire during vehicle convoys, and the plan is always to drive through the attack if it happens. I certainly don’t plan to exit an armored, moving vehicle to search for a sniper if a few unwelcome bullets come my way.

My fellow staff officers and I are not combat arms specialists and we are not nearly as familiar with our weapons, and perhaps we are much more uncomfortable handling them, than is an infantryman or even an enlisted sailor. When we return to our base from a mission, base regulations require us to clear our weapons of any ammunition. The process is fairly straighforward: you first release the magazine of ammunition from your weapon; then you pull the slide or charging handle back to expose the firing barrel and to visually ensure that no bullet sits in the firing chamber; and finally you take your weapon off safe, point the muzzle into a large red clearing barrel and pull the trigger. You should only hear a click when you pull the trigger, as you have already emptied the weapon of ammunition and visually cleared the weapon’s firing chamber. Several times in the past year, however, officers here heard more than a click as they put a slug into the sand packed-barrel designed to smother such errant bullets. That’s called a negligent discharge, and it earns you a visit with the commanding general on base.

Recently only officers have been guilty of negligent weapon discharges on this base, a fact that delights most of the enlisted personnel. Thankfully, the clearing barrels have absorbed only a few bullets. The officers who thought that assaulting the barrels was appropriate may have felt rushed to clear their weapons or they may have been temporarily distracted, but they breached weapon protocol nonetheless.

Some of these officers might also have suffered the illusion that the clearing barrels serve as final barriers to any harm that might come from their inattentiveness. A colleague commented to me “What’s the big deal if you fire a round into the barrel? That’s what it’s designed for.” But that’s dangerous thinking: The barrels are there to ensure that a weapon is empty of ammunition even if the handler fails to clear it properly. Personally, I don’t want to be near a clearing barrel when it is occupied by someone looking for a close-quarters firing exercise; and I’ve seen inattentive people clear a weapon with the thing pointed somewhere toward the barrel but certainly not safely inside of it. In fact, when I heard of the negligent discharge at this base, I was momentarily impressed to learn that the bullets at least made it into the barrels instead of finding nearby metal and wood and flesh.


Fat Robbie said...

Ingenious souls that they are, officers at a few CSHs in Iraq have apparently found a second use for the standard clearing barrel--at the weekly M and M conference in order to 'clear' flaring tempers.

Gloria said...

I liked how you got the medical officer to reconsider his gun's position.

Wendy said...

Wow! I'm so glad Sandra told me about your blog - your posts are always so informative, humorous and intelligent. It is so great to be able to follow you on your adventures Ron!

Eileen said...

Hey Ronny-
I love how you always make the most out of every situation. And it's good to know, that no matter what, you will still be talking about food. Miss you and hope you are doing well.

Liz said...

Dr. Willy,
I really enjoy all your storoeis. Specially "Trouble with weapons."
We miss you at the clinic.
Take care and be safe. And try to get some rest!! (:


Yut1 said...

Every Marine a rifleman... oh, right... wrong cammies, my bad.